How Turkish women became publicly and professionally involved in fine arts from the start of the 20th Century as part of modernisation efforts in the Ottoman Empire.
For several centuries, women who were the subjects of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire and whose families were close to the palace, practised fine arts as a hobby and within the confines of their homes.
There was no state-run institution that taught this art form, and it did not trickle down to the masses until the empire faced a large-scale societal churning triggered by new pressures brought about by rapid modernisation.
While in 1882, the Academy of Fine Arts was established to offer education exclusively to men, Ottoman women continued to practise art in the shadows. It took three more decades and a tenacious women's campaign to feminise the art space.
In 1914, the Academy of Fine Arts for Women was established with Turkish women finally making their debut in arts.
“The establishment of a fine arts school for women by the state was a manifestation of the societal change that was taking place in the Ottoman Empire,” Prof. Dr. Ahu Antmen, from Turkiye’s Sabanci University, told TRT World.
Prior to opening up the art space to the general public, women from affluent families received private classes from renowned painters such as Osman Hamdi Bey and the court painter Fausto Zonaro.
To understand how fine arts became popular among Turkish women and how they came to practise it officially and professionally, one must first take a detour to the 19th Century, when the empire found itself in an era of reform and modernisation commonly known as the Tanzimat period.
Influenced by European ideas, the Tanzimat period started in the late 1830s. It steered the Ottoman Empire to the first and second constitutional eras, in which a cultural orientation towards a Western sense of art and literature was included.
Fine arts began to shape into what it is today as the Tanzimat period also coincided with art evolving as a concept and its forms, such as painting and sculpture, being welcomed by the Ottoman state and people.
For non-Muslim Ottomans who were more Europeanised, this was already the case. In fact, there were multiple art studios in regions where the non-Muslim population constituted a majority, such as Istanbul’s Pera.
People were practising the arts in private studios already, but these mostly belonged to minorities and European artists.
“The real change was taking place for Muslim Ottomans, especially for those in the high ranks of society that were close to the palace, led by reformist sultans,” Antmen said.
Fine arts in Ottoman society
Located in the heart of Istanbul's Beyoglu district, home to some of the Ottoman architectural marvels like the Galata Tower and Kilic Ali Pasa Complex, the art academy is now part of modern-day Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.
Back in 1882, Osman Hamdi Bey, the famous Ottoman pioneer and painter of “The Tortoise Trainer,” founded the academy, which was inspired by France’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
“As its establishment signalled endorsement from the palace, the academy symbolised an official recognition for the practice of Western art in the empire. It was, in itself, a message conveyed to a society that saw painting and sculpting as foreign elements,” Antmen said.
“The establishment of the Academy of Fine Arts in the Ottoman Empire can be considered a landmark in the Muslim world’s reconcilation with Western artforms,” she added.
Political and societal changes, encompassing the Tanzimat period and the following years, also saw improvements in Ottoman women’s lives, rights and freedoms.
But the empire's first recognised art space, the Academy of Fine Arts, was restricted to male students, which was also the case in the West until late 19th Century when women officially began receiving education in the field of the arts.
“As in the West, Ottoman women’s practice of arts was seen as a distinguished hobby among those that supported modernisation - it was a mere hobby and there was no question of arts becoming a profession for women,” Prof. Antmen told TRT World.
Mihri Musfik Hanim
As the very first Turkish woman to pursue painting as an occupation throughout her life, Mihri Musfik Hanim became known as the first Turkish woman painter.
She was a student of Zonaro and carried her work to an international level while living in Italy, France and the United States as she continued her works there.
Renowned for her portraits, Musfik painted famous people including Turkiye’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the Pope.
According to some accounts, her biggest supporter was Abdulmejid II, the last Ottoman Caliph.
Musfik was also a member of the Ottoman Society of Painters, the first Turkish independent artists association, which was established in 1909 to spread and improve the practice of the arts in Ottoman lands.
However, among all her achievements, Mihri Musfik stands out for an initiative that paved the way for Turkish women to practise the arts in an official setting.
Seeing as the improvements modernisation brought to the empire were mostly enjoyed by men, Mihri Musfik took it upon herself to directly demand the establishment of a fine arts school for women from the Ottoman minister of education.
Through her initiative and persistence, in 1914, the Academy of Fine Arts for Women was established as a separate branch of the Academy of Fine Arts, and Mihri Musfik Hanim even became the director of the women’s academy.
“How many other young women would have dared to take on such a challenge and see it through in Ottoman society?” Antmen asked rhetorically, emphasising that Mihri Musfik was a pioneer who made it possible for Turkish women to make their debut in arts.
The Academy of Fine Arts for Women
“Women becoming publicly involved in arts, let alone community life, was a sign and result of radical changes taking place in the Ottoman Empire,” Antmen said.
Established in 1914, the women’s academy began its operations in two rooms of the Zeynep Hanim Mansion in Istanbul. The school attracted great interest and swiftly began filling the void in women’s fine arts education.
The number of enrolled students rose to 50 by December 1914, eventually reaching 180 during the 1918-1919 school year, and continued to increase.
The school had to change its location multiple times over the years for several reasons, including increasing demand and the need to improve facilities.
The teachers of the academy were renowned masters of fine arts, including Mihri Musfik. They followed classicism and impressionist movements, and did not vary much in style as impressionism was the prevailing art movement of the period.
At first, the school only offered education in painting, pastel, the history of fine arts, and perspective classes. Later on, the school opened a sculpting studio as well.
Mostly, the women’s academy fell behind the Academy of Fine Arts in terms of the variety of classes. But there was one class that was offered at the women’s academy which was not in the curriculum of the original academy.
Although women’s rights had increased with the Second Constitutional Era in the Ottoman Empire, it was still a challenge for women to practise their art in public. So, the Academy of Fine Arts for Women offered landscape classes to its students to compensate for that shortcoming.
In the summer, the students would go to Istanbul’s many scenic settings, such as the Topkapi Palace and Gulhane Park, accompanied by their teachers to practise and study. These trips took place with special dispensation and the women were guarded by the police.
Nude and anatomy classes were also added to the curriculum with the encouragement of Mihri Musfik. However, although the school struggled with finding models for these classes.
They attempted to solve this issue with women brought in from public baths, but the definitive solution came with an inflow of Russian migrants in 1917. The students now focused on painting portraits and nudes.
Nevertheless, as all models were women, paintings with male subjects turned out looking rather feminine, prompting Mihri Musfik to try to find male models. She came up with a rather creative solution by requesting moulds of the torsos found in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.
Still, the issue of male models proved to be more difficult than finding female models as people eventually expressed dissent over women working with nude sculptures, taking the matter to the Ottoman minister of education.
Mihri Musfik, however, justified the school’s use of nude torsos by claiming they used loincloths to cover them - although some accounts suggest this was not the clase.
While the torsos helped students practise nudes, the lifeless figures prevented them from studying coloured male figures, leading Mihri Musfik to seek out live models.
For this, the education ministry would only allow old and crippled male models with the condition that they would remain clothed. So, a 100-year-old man from a coffeehouse in Tophane called Zaro Aga became the first male model.
In three days, Zaro Aga would quit his job, saying he felt uncomfortable having so many “houris” (beautiful women that accompany faithful Muslims in Paradise) staring at him. He was then replaced by the academy’s 85-year-old doorman Ali Efendi.
Ali Efendi would remain as the model until the Academy of Fine Arts for Women was eventually merged with the Academy of Fine Arts, beginning mixed-sex education, in 1926.
Women became artists
In a 10-year period, the women’s academy became the first and only official fine arts academy that was dedicated to schooling Turkish women, and its purpose was completed with the merger.
From 1914 onwards, the Ottoman Empire and Turkiye saw a significant increase in women artists, and the academy’s graduates would move on to contribute to artistic efforts in the country.
With the founding of the Republic of Turkiye, women’s inclusion became part of the state’s ideology and the arts gained great importance with the efforts of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, breathing new life into women’s artistic endeavours.
Mihri Hanim spent the last years of her life destitute in the US and was buried in a common grave in 1954, but her legacy lives on thanks to her initiative and leadership in establishing the Academy of Fine Arts for Women.
“With the women’s academy, artistic efforts became more than a pastime for Turkish women. The academy made it possible for women to be identified as artists, to practise fine arts as a profession,” Antmen said.
HEADLINE IMAGE: I-You-They exhibition by Mesher Art Gallery, Istanbul.